Berlin Trip, January 2018

Playing with Virtual Realities Symposium

This January, I went to Berlin for a short trip to experience some performance and media artworks that were taking place across the city; these included a Playing with Virtual Realities Symposium and Performance at Dock11; Exhibition Uncanny Valleys of a Possible Future as part of CTM festival at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien; and a meeting with Berlin-based organisation Art-Science Node.

Figure 1: Snapshot taken at CTM festival, Berlin

The first event that I attended was a symposium, organized and hosted by Dr. Einav Katan-Schmid who is a performance philosopher based in Berlin. The symposium was held at an amazing venue in Berlin called Dock11 (Dockelf). http://www.dock11-berlin.de/index.php/cat/1_0/id/p664_Playing-with-Virtual-Realities.html.

I was present for two panels; the first on interdisciplinary research and the second on performance philosophy, with guests around the table coming from broad angles. Interjected between the panels were short excerpts of the “playing with virtual realities” research that Einav has been conducting with two dancers plus a wider interdisciplinary team over a number of days where two dancers moved and talked through some of the themes of the research.

Figure 2: Playing with Virtual Realities Symposium

In the first panel, models and modes for interdisciplinary research were discussed, and how we might make convergences between different fields and how we might begin to work together. If not necessarily on the same page, finding ways in which to create and locate a collective ‘mind-body’ with an openness toward finding out about new ways to approach the things which are most important, crucial or even urgent for each of us at this moment.

After watching a digital video animation and adaptation of Deborah Hay’s solo score No Time To Fly by Amin Weber, which was introduced by Scott deLahunta (panelist), I thought about what emerges when one artistic practice leads to an artwork created from within a different artistic practice: A process which begins with observations and this moves toward a felt empathy, and this sensation unfolds and emerges in new ways from a new standpoint and practice. Scott deLahunta talked about the way in which Amin Weber created the digital artwork based on Hay’s solo practice through his “empathetic” sense of the work.

I thought about the notion of Nancy Stark-Smith’s Underscore as a model which might serve the bringing together of people from different disciplines – artists, scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians – to play with patterns and perceptions of thinking (as movement), as it well serves dancers who come together to move. This score seems to underlie both the experience of the individual and of the collective, and which is located in a specific space-time. Within Stark-Smith’s score, broadly speaking, there is time for arriving, assembly, pre-ambulation, internally locating and agitating, externally connecting to the space and to ‘other’, and from which comes an engagement and development of ideas, freedom and resolution and finally a process of disengagement, reflection and a harvesting of ideas and thanks. To take a look at the score in more detail go to http://nancystarksmith.com/underscore/

“What constitutes dance knowledge?” was a question that came up for the panel: Dance occurs through the act of moving, it is ‘practiced’, and to speak or to write of it means that it becomes ‘translated’ with some element of it as undefinable or lost. It is possible to use the ways in which dancers have found knowledge, the methods of dance practices – such as Stark-Smith’s Underscore which was based on her observations of how dancers behave, move and interact in a space over a period of time. The methods and practices of dance, as knowledge, is gained in ways which can be used in and useful to non-dance environments.

One (unforgettable) panelist was game-designer Thorsten S. Wiedemann who had recently performed a 48-hour VR marathon, supported by his ‘VR Shaman’. This durational performance was streamed live over the net.

Figure 3: Thorsten S. Wiedemann and his Shaman in 48-hour VR

He talked about a panic attack he suffered mid-way through, sleeping in a cage, waking up on a beach (not where he went to sleep), and taking pills to stop him going to the toilet too much. For him, it was a performance of endurance, and one in which he wanted to discover himself in the virtual space. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have legs, I don’t really notice my legs, it’s just me, in VR I can be just me” (Wiedemann). Can VR then be considered as a ‘place’ where ‘difference’ is transcended, where bodily constraint is freed up (in gravity-free and border-less zones), and in which consciousness and the act of being and moving – alone and together – move past the boundaries of ‘body’ and ‘identity’. Certainly, for Thorsten, this was the case. Although he was alone, he was aided at all times by his ‘Shaman’ who supported him through the daily activity and who located and communicated his performance online. For someone in VR, the need for a witness, a support, a guide is important to gauge. For Thorsten, the ‘Shaman’ was essential to him, in particular through his panic attack – during which I can only imagine a train of thoughts or questions went something like; where am I, who am I, and more fundamentally what is real? And, do I exist? To hold the hand of someone who is anchored or grounded in the ‘real’ / ‘physical’ world might be important/essential. Once he had got past the panic, I wonder whether he found new and expanded perimeters for his environment, his body, and the nature of existence and what he constituted as real.

During the panel, VR was discussed as something that could be considered as a further limb of our body; a limb of imagination, beyond imagination to a realm of that which has not yet been imagined. The ritual of entering into VR as that which transcends that which is known. Our bodies are plastic, adaptable: Is there then the possibility of VR aiding a re-patterning of bodily/sensorial/perceptual norms? Certainly, events such as Thorsten’s 48-hour stint in VR can begin to unravel more about what being in VR does to our body-minds. Thorsten wanted to discover himself in VR “how I move, how I think, how I feel, how I dream” (Wiedemann). Through his VR marathon, he gifted things, collected things, put things in order, burned things. Read about his bonkers experience here: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/gv5b43/watch-a-man-spend-48-hours-in-virtual-reality

It was discussed, more broadly, that VR spaces have the possibility to be spaces for contemplation and critical thinking, with opportunities for shifts in knowledges and ontologies: To be sure that we are as real as we seem to be. In fact, the relationship we have to our virtual self, as virtual, is perhaps more reasonable way of considering ourselves, by using the gap between real and virtual to step away and re-address value systems etc. It is harder to step back from the real, to get underneath those systems embedded in the ‘real’, those that form our subjective realities. The gap between the real and the virtual enables a stepping back, a re-evaluation, a speaking back to normative values and judgements. But to do this, we need a grammar.

Playing with Virtual Realities performance took place at Dock11, in the same space as the symposium had taken place. A striking and memorable moment, for me, in the performance of Playing with Virtual Realities was at the end when a young girl (aged 8) was invited into the space to put the VR headset on. She is willing (she is the daughter of one of the project team and so is perhaps familiar with the dancers and with the technology). A bubble environment plays out in the virtual space (Google Tiltbrush) – an environment created by the dancers in the previous scene – and audience are given bottles of bubble to blow into the spac to ‘re-create’ this virtual environment in the physical space. We, ‘the adults’ (a mix of artists from the project and audience members) dance around the girl, as she moves and plays in the virtual environment. It is play, although in an earlier scene we watched and witnessed the dancers shoot one (virtually). This moment with the young girl is light, but there are dark undertones: The vulnerability of a child who is open, and in the same moment her young body is cut off from sensing her physical reality. She is unaware of the physical activity surrounding her, she can’t see it, and her (visual) reality is one that has been constructed for her. Though it’s fair to say that reality is already constructed, even the imagination of children are based on constructions that have been received by them through the stories told by their family, in school, through the media – different forms of storytelling.

On many levels, humans are already cut off from their physical environment and, through this loss of communication, there becomes a sense of separateness and a loss of understanding and empathy toward the nonhuman ‘other’. Does VR have the power to attend to these realities of our time?

Figure 4: performance of Playing with Virtual Realities with audience engagement

CTM

Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien Uncanny Valleys of a Possible Future hosted a CTM 2018 Exhibition. Exhibiting artists were: Frédérick A. Belzile, Guy Ben-Ary, Jessica Ekomane, Peter Flemming, Lawrence Lek, Teun Vonk, Anne de Vries, Zorka Wollny & Andrzej Wasilewski, ZULI. Curated by: Oliver Baurhenn. The website writes about the exhibition as a presentation of “a variety of artistic approaches that occasionally playfully but always political address the festival theme Turmoil: Tension / Explosion, Apathy / Commitment, Regression / Progression, Despair / Hope in their works, the artists take different paths to address the disruption and controversy of our time and to find a way to deal with resulting tension and discomfort”.

Figure 5: Snapshot taken at CTM festival, Berlin

Photographer and video artist, Teun Vonk’s Physical Mind (2015) consists of two inflatable objects which move toward each other as a body lies between them (see image). The body is supported by the lower object and pressed on by the higher one. It was Vonk’s attempt to make an experience in which participants deal with the relation between their physical and mental states: It was based on the notion that people feel less in heightened states of sensitivity, such as stress as these states are there to serve the evolutionary process of fight or flight and as such filter out any information that is superfluous to this process. The artist created the physical simulation of the objects as a relief from stress and therefore enabling a greater capacity for increased perceptual information. As the body is lifted it creates a physical feeling of instability whilst pressure down onto the body creates a sense of being gently squeezed. Vonk writes about the experience of this not being only for the participants, but also for the bystanders who witness them undergoing the experience as it evokes feelings of empathy.

Figure 6: Teun Vonk, Physical Mind

I watched the film Geomancer by Lawrence Lek which deals with AI and human evolution – art and creativity, and Anne De Vries’s Critial Mass: Pure Immanence which deals with mass consciousness through cinematographic light shows – lots to digest, more on this later.

Art-Science Node

My last evening in Berlin was spent at Art Science Node discussing VR, sentient intelligence, trees and politics: More specifically, the ‘wood wide web’, being rooted, footprints, imprints, vegetal ecosystems, fragility, and strings. We talked about the possibility of how you might combine an arts installation which journeys the participant-audience through several spaces, and how VR might be a part of a wider, mixed-reality framework to experience; Ritual; The political body in VR, and how people can be not themselves; The question of embodiment in science practices; and VR as an empathy machine framework as a value that is sold.

Figure 8: Note

With thanks to Richard and Chris for the flat; and David Glowacki, my PhD supervisor; Dan Farberoff, friend, dancer and film-maker currently living in Berlin; Abigail De Kosnik, Associate Professor in the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies; Benjamin De Kosnik, Media Artist and Engineer; and Art Science Node in Berlin for the fascinating conversations.
lisamay.thomas@mac.com
www.lisamaythomas.co.uk

 Off to drink some wine now…